Wheel done

After years of lobbying Asheville officials to first create and then implement the Comprehensive Bicycle Plan, local cyclists are starting to see results. Bike lanes were recently installed on Lexington, Kimberly and Coxe avenues. And by the end of the summer, they're scheduled to appear on Hilliard, Asheland and Clingman avenues as well on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Around we go: Construction continues on a Clingman Avenue roundabout, sidewalk and bicycle climbing lane. The project is scheduled to be complete in August. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Adopted by City Council in 2008, the bike plan envisions a 181-mile network, including 43 miles of dedicated bike lanes as well as other cycle-friendly improvements. While the city still has a long way to go to realize those goals, Asheville on Bikes founder Mike Sule says he's encouraged by the recent progress.

"There's part of me that wants to wake up and see all 181 miles done overnight," he notes. "But the more reasonable part of me says we're moving along at a good clip. … With all of these bike lanes getting done at once, Asheville's rapidly establishing a network of connectivity of bicycle infrastructure, which is great."

As the new bike lanes make two-wheeled commuting more convenient, Sule hopes more riders will take to the streets, creating a snowball effect that will help get the rest of the plans rolling.

"That's the way it works: When you put in a network of biking infrastructure, ridership increases," he asserts.

The "traffic diet"

With the exception of the Clingman Avenue project, which includes a roundabout and sidewalk in addition to a bicycle climbing lane, most of the recent improvements have been paid for by federal stimulus money. To make the most of that funding, the city has been reconfiguring existing roads rather than widening them, city Project Engineer John Gavin reports.

"We've got big constraints. We've got steep slopes on either side of most of our roads, and we just don't have much room. It's so expensive to cut slopes back and build retaining walls," he explains.

Instead, the city is repaving roads and remarking the lanes with thermoplastic striping, which lasts longer and is more reflective than traditional paint. In a process Gavin calls "traffic dieting," vehicular lanes (and, in some cases, parking spaces) are being trimmed or eliminated to make room for the bike lanes.

"It's exactly like a diet — thinning, narrowing things down to encourage a little bit slower traffic," he notes. "Vehicular traffic will feel a little more confined, and law-abiding [motorists] will drive 5 or 10 mph slower."

According to Gavin, safety concerns are also a main reason the state Department of Transportation is installing the roundabout at the corner of Clingman and Roberts Street, as opposed to a four-way traffic light.

"There's less accidents at a roundabout intersection. … It's a little bit harder to run a red light at a roundabout and T-bone somebody," he points out. "There's also less wear and tear on your vehicle, because it's less likely that you'll come to a complete stop."

Despite those benefits, however, Gavin says he's already begun hearing from drivers confused or concerned about the changes.

"There's some negative feelings, but usually it's just by people who don't understand what we're trying to accomplish," he observes. "They call and say, 'Hey, this parking lane you made is too narrow — I can't park in it,' and of course they're talking about the bicycle lane."

Multimodal momentum

So far, however, those concerns don’t appear to run deep enough to derail the growing multimodal momentum.

Over the years, notes city Transportation Planner Barb Mee, the efforts of groups such as Asheville on Bikes, the Strive Not to Drive Committee and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force have made her job easier.

"All those folks out there saying this is important always helps," she explains. "It's helped with the general atmosphere we have in Asheville right now, where people are focused on other modes of transportation besides that single-occupancy vehicle."

Sule, too, sees a cultural shift.

"We're really at a point where the people of the city want it," he maintains. "The people of Asheville want to be able to move about without the use of a car."

Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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